Namibia Chips Away at African Taboos on Homosexuality

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 24, 2005

WINDHOEK, Namibia -- As a boy of 14, Petrus Gurirab worried that he was gay. Seeking advice from a trustworthy adult, he went to see a teacher who had treated him kindly.

"I have feelings for other boys," Gurirab recalled telling her. "Like love feelings."

There was a long silence.

"My advice is that it's not African" to be gay, the teacher replied, using a slur for the term. "Ignore those feelings and try girls."

She also apparently gossiped with colleagues. Other teachers started teasing Gurirab, asking him why he didn't play soccer and why he spent so much time around his mother. Then one morning, he said, the gym teacher invited him into his office, locked the door and forced him onto the desk for sex.

"Let's see how good you are at it," the teacher said, according to Gurirab, now 25, who recounted the story through tears. The ordeal left his legs and arms with red bruises. The next day, distraught and confused, he had sex with a female classmate.

"I wanted to change so badly and not be gay . . . but I couldn't," he said. "I knew I liked men. I decided I would kill myself. . . . I was so desperate I called a lifeline in London. They saved my life."

Un-African. Un-Christian. Anti-family. Witchcraft.

In many African countries, being gay is considered all of those things. It is also illegal in most of them, so taboo that a conviction for homosexual acts may bring more jail time than rape or murder. Only in South Africa is being gay widely accepted and protected by law.

From Uganda, where homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment, to Sierra Leone, where a lesbian activist was raped and stabbed to death at her desk last year, homophobia has long trapped gays in a dangerous, closeted life. With no places to meet openly, no groups to join, it seems sometimes that gay men and lesbians in Africa don't exist at all.

But in Namibia, a growing national debate about homosexuality has followed a period of harsh condemnation, and gay rights groups now operate openly in the capital, Windhoek.

One of them is the Rainbow Project, where Gurirab works as a suicide prevention counselor. The organization has interviewed gay Africans from across the continent, and its leaders say they believe the time is right to challenge prejudices and start a wider discussion on what being gay really means.

"The only answer is education," said Linda Baumann, 21, who grew up in a tribal community and was expelled from it when she revealed she was a lesbian. She now lives in Windhoek and hosts a radio program about gay issues. "We have to have courage and stick up for ourselves."

The Rainbow Project has joined forces with other interest groups, including the women's movement, people with AIDS and progressive political parties, which have been lobbying for equal rights for all Africans. Unlike in many Western countries, gays have never been blamed for the AIDS pandemic in Africa, where the disease is largely transmitted through heterosexual sex and blood transfusions.

The continent's gay population, which is mostly youthful and active in cities, has also benefited from Africa's rapid urbanization. These days, TV programs such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" are beamed via satellite from the West, and a smorgasbord of gay-oriented Web sites can be accessed at Internet cafes.

One Web site based in South Africa, "Behind the Mask," receives hundreds of hits each day, along with e-mail messages from gay men and lesbians across the continent asking about how they should reveal their sexual orientation to their parents or how to meet the right partner.

Even so, the Rainbow Project must use extreme discretion when trying to conduct research outside Namibia -- let alone urging other gays across Africa to demand their rights. In Somalia, for example, armed militiamen frequently stone gays. In Egypt, Baumann said, "you will just get killed."

Ian Swartz, the Rainbow Project director, said that even when he was in Nairobi, the cosmopolitan capital of Kenya, he had difficulty meeting gay men until he arranged a late-night meeting with a stranger. He arrived at a club after midnight, "and there it was -- an underground gay community in Kenya." The men he met told him "harrowing" stories, he said. "I felt really sad afterward, but I learned a lot."

Treatment of gays, group members said, ranges from social ostracism to physical attacks. In rural Namibia, they found, about 80 percent of gay men and lesbians were forced to marry and have children. In many countries, gay people were often depressed and reported having covert same-sex relations outside heterosexual marriages.

Gay students may drop out of school or face beatings for being "funny," Baumann said. Some are put through violent "cures." In Tanzania and Botswana, there were more than a dozen reports of lesbians being raped in an effort to persuade them to marry men.

But Swartz said the Rainbow Project also found a long history of ethnic groups giving tribal labels to those who are gay -- some negative, but others neutral.

"That proves that it wasn't a European import," Swartz said. "It's as African as being straight, and it was always here."

Throughout African history, gays have been accepted in some tribes. Lesbians were sometimes seen as having mystical powers, and in South Africa they acted as traditional healers. In times of conflict or drought, however, gays were used as scapegoats and blamed for not producing babies to repopulate their regions, according to researchers of same-sex practices in Africa.

European missionaries further demonized homosexuality, and church pulpits remain bastions of anti-gay rhetoric in Nigeria and several other countries. Politicians also have found gay-bashing a useful way to deflect criticism from unpopular policies.

Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, once declared: "Kenya has no room or time for homosexuals and lesbians. It is against African norms and traditions and is a great sin." Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe recently dismissed gays as "lower than pigs and dogs."

In Namibia, gays said there was a relatively relaxed climate in large cities in the years before and after independence from South Africa in 1990, and gay couples in Windhoek could hold hands in the street. But in the mid-'90s, they said, a chilling change occurred.

"The first five years after independence it was like a utopia," Swartz said. "People were proud to be gay. But when Namibian leaders' promises fell through and poverty did not improve, the government became increasingly unpopular. . . . The leaders were looking for a smokescreen and someone to blame."

In 1996, the public campaign against homosexuals began, after a group of cross-dressing men used a women's restroom during a rally of the ruling party. At the time, unemployment was at 60 percent and opposition parties were on the attack.

Days later, then-President Sam Nujoma gave his first anti-gay speech, saying that "homosexuals must be condemned and rejected." Suddenly, many officials were bashing gays. One minister called homosexuality a "behavioral disorder which is alien to African culture."

In response, the Rainbow Project was formed. Members went to churches and schools, and showed up on TV talk shows. They held workshops with Namibia's Human Rights Organization, which was respected for protesting corruption, police brutality and domestic violence.

There were heated debates, with some people saying that homosexuality was a threat to tradition and that men needed sons to inherit their land. That raised the issue of women's rights in the country's largest ethnic group, the Ovambo, which is deeply patriarchal and does not allow women to own land.

As the climate has improved in Namibia, Rainbow Project members now say they hope to replicate their success in other countries.

"What is hopeful is that we are having a national conversation. When I saw people from the Rainbow Project on TV, I knew they were helping young gay people out there who were really suffering," said Helmuth Oxurub, 35, who works in a furniture store in the coastal town of Swakopmund. "We want to say to people, 'You know us in everyday life, we are here and we aren't so bad.' People really seem to accept that message."

One recent evening, Oxurub arrived at a cafe in Swakopmund with his partner of seven years, Harold Uchman, 30, who works in the uranium mining industry. They were joined by another openly gay friend, Victor Honeb, 34, who works for the government.

They spoke about how they had revealed their sexual orientation to their parents and how stressful and confusing their childhoods had been. Oxurub said his mother had ordered him out of the house after neighbors started telling her he was gay.

"I said, 'Mom, accept me or not . . . I am your son and I am still the same person,' " Oxurub recalled. "She just started crying and hugged me. Then no one bothered us."

Lately, the three friends agreed, being gay in cities such as Windhoek and Swakopmund has even begun to acquire a certain image of urban hipness and going against the grain. So should there be a "Queer Eye for the Namibian Guy"?

"Maybe," Honeb said with a smile, adjusting his fashionable black-rimmed glasses. "A neighbor came over to me recently and said, 'Gay people are really cosmopolitan. . . . Being gay is so in right now.' I was really surprised and so happy. I hope that spreads to all of Africa -- one day."

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